The Briefing Room

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Agustin Baldioli

Published on February 17, 2010 , Modified on February 19, 2010

  • Museum: The International Spy Museum

  • Visit Date: February, 2010

  • Description:

    There are few museums that depend as heavily on technology to engage, enhance, expand, and extend the visitor experience than the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. The International Spy Museum is bursting with audiovisual effects, e.g., video monitors, interactive touch screen games, listening stations, film theaters, talking elevators, and technology based, multimedia exhibitions. Yet, the best example of how the museum incorporates technology into its interpretive plan and overall museum experience is the “Briefing Room.”

    The Briefing Room’s main purpose is to prepare, or “brief,” visitors before immersing them into the shadowy, cloak and dagger world that is international espionage. Before entering the galleries that house the bulk of the museum’s 200 artifacts, visitors prepare to live the life of a spy by selecting a new identity in the Covers and Legends room. Then, staff escorts visitors into the Briefing Room, a 45-seat theater where guests view:

    “An introductory film about the world of espionage plays in a theater evocative of an intelligence agency briefing room. Addressing common preconceptions and misconceptions visitors may have from pop culture and current affairs, the film focuses on the realities spies face every day.”
    -International Spy Museum Press Kit

    While the technology behind the Briefing Room is not as state of the art as other exhibits, it effectively engages and prepares visitors for their museum experience. The 5-minute film dives into why certain individuals choose to live in the world of espionage, what might happen if they are discovered, but most importantly, it challenges the visitors’ beliefs as to what being a spy is really like. Popular culture has portrayed the life of a spy as a glamorous, yet precarious, occupation, however the Briefing Room successfully challenges visitors to face the realities of what a life of espionage entails. At then end of the film, visitors will understand that spies don’t save the world on a daily basis, but risk their lives to collect the vital information world leaders depend on to make critical decisions. Furthermore, it capably provides the perspective visitors need to view the museum’s artifacts in their proper context. Lipstick pistols, coat button cameras, and lock pick sets are stimulating artifacts by themselves, but they take on a completely new meaning when seen through the lens of how they are utilized to allow spies to accomplish their directives. All this is wrapped up in an entertaining and thought provoking film presented in a setting and manner parallel to that of today’s intelligence community.

    The success of the Briefing Room and its introductory film can be measured in the engagement and excitement it generates in the museum’s patrons. The museum deliberately manages guest access to the museum to provide the most enjoyable environment possible; it limits entrance to groups of 45 or less because of the Briefing Room’s seating capacity. It also limits the guest’s ability to exit by having automated doors timed to open only after the film concludes. However, this confinement does not diminish the film’s efficacy to generate engagement and excitement. Rarely does a visitor attempt to exit the Briefing Room before the film finishes, complains to the management that their time was ill spent watching the brief, or bypass the film when the exit doors are purposely left open. Further proof of the exhibit’s success in holding the attention of its audience can be measured by observing visitors of all ages watching with rapt attention. One group that might be expected to be problematic, large, boisterous groups of teenage visitors, have been seen to fully engage in the film presentation, e.g., refrain from talking to others, busying themselves with mobile phones or headphones, or occupying their attention in other ways.

    Overall, the Briefing Room at the International Spy Museum is one of the best uses of technology I have experienced. In the Briefing Room, the museum does not employ technology for technology’s sake; film is the perfect medium to convey the desired information. It is able to reach its intended audience of 45 guests, is cost effective and sustainable, and is a very familiar form of technology for audiences to experience. The museum’s calculated decision to provide an introductory film in a briefing room succeeds in engaging the visitor in the world of espionage, enhances the museum experience by providing the context needed to view and enjoy its artifacts, expands guests’ understanding as to who is willing to live and work as an undercover operative, and extends the importance of having an intelligence gathering community, all while being entertaining.

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